By Michelle Browning Coughlin, Of Counsel
©2022 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author. They have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities.
Last year my teenage daughter asked me to watch Stranger Things with her so that when the fourth season aired this summer, I would be all caught up and we could enjoy it together. Even though I am not typically a fan of sci-fi or horror shows, she assured me I would like the popular Netflix series about kids living in a dystopian 1980s world. Even if I had not liked it, I would have watched it anyway. This year, she will be a senior in high school, and I don’t want to miss a moment that I could spend with her.
As an ’80s kid myself, watching the show with my daughter feels like a bridge between my childhood and hers. The series’s many ’80s references are familiar and a bit nostalgic, and, as in the scary movies I watched in the ’80s, the alternate universe in Stranger Things, called “The Upside Down,” has monsters that seem impossible to kill. Even when you think they are finally defeated, somehow they come back from the dead. My daughter, who is afraid of absolutely nothing, thinks it is amusing that her grown-up mom covers her eyes because she is afraid of the monsters that lurk on the screen.
But as I watch the show with her, I am more fearful about the upside-down world that she and my other teenage daughter are inheriting in real life. I worry about the monster of misogyny that seems to never be defeated, often shape-shifting into new and scary forms with each return.
I have to cover my eyes when I realize my girls are now growing up in a dystopian reality where Dobbs is the law of the land and where Obergefell and even Griswold are called into question. What kind of upside-down world are we living in where my daughters have fewer rights than their mother and grandmothers?
Launching my daughters into adulthood is part of my job as a parent, but sending them to college, where more than one in four female students report being sexually assaulted or raped, is terrifying. Compound that fear with the sheer horror of a world where, in more than half of the United States, our college-bound daughters would be forced into bringing a pregnancy resulting from rape to term.
The powerful and well-funded misogyny of the church and the state, which, as I recall from law school, are supposed to be separate here in the United States, is more frightening than any monster the Duffer brothers could ever write into a Stranger Things episode.
In this post-Dobbs dystopia, we no longer depend on the imaginings of horror writers to depict a hospital where nurses monitor a pregnant person’s blood levels to determine when they are “almost dead enough” that the hospital can offer a life-saving operation for an ectopic pregnancy. No fictionalization required: This is reality in the United States now.
And just when I thought things could not get stranger, I recently read a letter from a group of Texas state legislators, calling themselves the “Texas Freedom Caucus,” threatening the global firm of Sidley Austin LLP and its 2,000 lawyers. Like many firms and corporations, including the firm for which I work, Sidley has stated that it would support its employees in the event that they needed to travel for access to abortion services. The “Texas Freedom Caucus” letter claimed litigation is already underway to investigate Sidley and anyone who may be violating a Texas law that prohibits “aiding and abetting” a woman from accessing an abortion. To amp up their threats, these Texas legislators stated that they plan to enact additional civil and criminal sanctions specifically against law firms that help pay for abortions or abortion travel.
When a group of state legislators threatens to sue a global law firm and disbar its lawyers—the same lawyers who have vowed to defend the constitutional right for individuals to travel and the federal right to health privacy—The Upside Down has become reality.
I believe many individuals within the anti-choice movement are genuinely convinced that Dobbs is a victory for “life.” I worry their positions are based on statistical manipulation and false narratives; the powerful players behind the anti-abortion movement have taken misogyny and carefully crafted it into a shiny package tied with a bow. Disinformation, political polarization, and cognitive dissonance have become as threatening and woven into our daily lives as the monster’s unending tentacles in Stranger Things.
The anti-abortion movement markets itself as “pro-life,” while critics often refer to the movement as merely “pro-birth.” But neither label captures the real undercurrent of the anti-abortion movement.
How can the movement convince its followers that it is “pro-life” after all when many of the same elected representatives who fought to overturn Roe also accept campaign funding offered by the gun lobby and look away as those babies whose lives they claim to protect are gunned down in classrooms?
How can the movement call itself “pro-life” when the maternal mortality rate in the United States is nearly double that of every other high-income country and has been increasing annually? Black women’s lives are especially endangered by the mere act of giving birth in this country, with a maternal mortality rate near three times that of white women.
Preventing access to abortion services in this country is neither pro-life nor pro-birth. It is, and always has been, anti-woman. Cults, courts, and culture have all acted in ways that legally and socially ensure that the unpaid labor of society will be borne primarily by women and that they will have less access to paid work and independent financial stability. Policies from every angle that impact women’s lives and autonomy are driven by deeply seated, well-funded, propaganda-driven beliefs that women should be moms and that moms should be at home, caring for the children necessary to build a nation and its workforce.
The anti-abortion movement is yet another way to ensure that women have less control over their lives and, therefore, are less able to compete with men in the labor market. Rosie the Riveter was sent to work when the nation required her help but promptly forced back home when the young men returning from World War II needed those paid positions back. President Richard Nixon, with religious and social conservatives whispering in his ear, reversed course on universal childcare in the early ’70s to prevent women from “destroying the family” by having more access to paid work—and to prevent them from competing with men for jobs. The shoulder-padded ’80s moms depicted in Stranger Things share with today’s moms the challenges of the enduring “motherhood penalty” bias and the persistence of pay inequity, that while incrementally closing for women overall has actually worsened for moms.
Besides the real health and safety threats, severely limiting women’s access to reproductive health care and their bodily autonomy means women lose the freedom to control fundamental decisions over their personal and professional lives. Financial instability and lack of access to positions of power also serve to silence the political voice of women. So, just like Rosie, back to the kitchen they will be forced to go.
The boogeyman that I fear is not hiding under my little girls’ beds, nor is it stuck inside the screen of a teen sci-fi series. The dangers I desperately want to protect them from have come out from the shadows, despite generations of women fighting to bring an end to policies, beliefs, and biases that harm women and girls.
Like those ’80s monsters, even when it seems some part of it has been defeated, misogyny is always lurking, waiting to come raging back.